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I was up before it was light. My hand felt under my pillow for the newspaper. It was a real story. Not just another one of my dreams. The first real way out of my black life.
I jumped into my shoes, started the coffee, reached for my comb—all in one breath. Gone the ache of a night on that ungodly bed. The sagging spring, the humpy, lumpy mattress. The smells from the fish store below no longer mattered.
Two swallows of coffee—and I was out, running down the street, clutching a roll in one hand, the magic newspaper in the other.
I couldn't stop my rush till I got on the steps of the house. I glanced at my wrist watch. Before seven. The street was still asleep. The late Sunday morning sleep. A whole hour yet before I dared ring the bell.
My reflection in the plate-glass door made me laugh in spite of all my excitement. My tam pulled over one ear, my thick red hair standing out on the other side like a wild Indian's. The bottom of my coat uneven, my collar awry because I had skipped the first buttonhole.
"Adele Lindner!" I laughed aloud, "what a funny little object you are!"
I set my hat in place, re buttoned my coat, walking up and down before the silent house. Again I turned to the article in the Sunday paper.
Mrs. Hellman, the banker's wife, had just given a hundred thousand dollars to endow the Home for Working Girls.... I looked at the pictures. Mrs. Hellman. What a face! The sunshine and goodness of the other world smiled at me.... Dining room— Gymnasium—Laundry. Even a reception hall where girls could invite men.
Imagine me inviting a man at Mrs. Greenberg's! Where? In her shut-up parlour? Her kitchen, where she watched every step made on her precious new oilcloth? Or in that hole in the wall— my bedroom?
If I wanted any of the men that wanted me—what would I do? They'd have to meet me in the street.
Here was real home. A place where a girl had a right to breathe and move around like a free human being. Everything I longed for and dreamed of at Mrs. Greenberg's was here. Light, air, space, enough room to hang up my clothes. Even a bureau with a mirror to see myself as I dressed. But more than the mirror, the space to move around. More than the light, the air. I wanted to meet that warm-hearted spirit of love who had thought it all out: Mrs. Hellman, the Friend of the Working Girl.
Spreading the newspaper on the cold stone steps, I sat down to wait. I leaned my head against the door, envious of the lucky girls safe inside.
Free! Free at last from the Mrs. Greenbergs, with the lodgings they kept, and the life they led me.
How she had nagged that time I had spattered a little water on the floor! Everything I had done that day got on Mrs. Greenberg's nerves. My milk had boiled over on her newly polished stove. I had left the gas burning in my room when I went down to the store. I had hung up the dishpan on the wrong hook. She found a scorched spot on the ironing board and blamed me for it.
I fled from her kitchen, not caring where I was going. In the dark hall I stumbled over a pail of suds with which Mrs, Hershbein, the janitress, was mopping the floor.
"Oi-i weh-h! Did you hurt yourself?" she cried, helping me up.
"Hell itself can't hurt me, since I live with Mrs. Greenberg," I laughed bitterly. "Eight dollars a month rent I pay her—and she makes me feel like a thief when I have to step into her kitchen."
"For your good money, why don't you look yourself around for another place?"
"What's another place? Last time I had a kind landlady. So the house was dirty, and now my landlady is so clean she stands at the kitchen door with a rag in her hand, waiting for me to wipe my shoes before I step on her new oilcloth."
"Nu—nu, Adele!" soothed Mrs. Hershbein. "Better come and give only a step up by me. A taste from my gefülte fish will make you forget your troubles."
Upstairs, in the corner of the kitchen, books all around him, was her son Shlomoh. His shabby pushcart clothes faded as his face lighted with intelligence. He stood up awkwardly, fidgeting with his necktie. "You!" he gulped. "I wanted to stop you—many times. I—you never noticed me. I saw you every day—" His voice came to a sudden halt. It made me nervous, the way he kept his eyes on me.
—In Columbia College he studies—my son," his mother pointed to him triumphantly. —Think only! In another year, he finishes himself—Doctor of Philosophy."
From the stove came the smell of gefülte fish and fried lotkes. Shlomoh joined his mother in insisting that I stay with them for dinner.
There, while drinking tea, after dinner, Shlomoh jestingly showed me the article in the Sunday paper about Mrs. Hellman. And here I was—on the doorsteps of the Hellman Home at last!
Eight o'clock pealed from the Metropolitan tower. My heart thumped in my ears as I pressed the bell.
A girl like myself opened the door. I caught a glimpse of the dining room. Long white tables, crowded with more girls like myself. Girls of my own kind, lively as at a party.
The office to which I was shown was as perfect as the picture in the paper. White Swiss curtains. Plain brown rug on the hardwood floor. The couch with cushions to match. My! What a difference from Mrs. Greenberg's parlour! Her lace curtains! The clutter of ornaments on the mantelpiece! The pink paper flowers in their five-and-ten-cent crystal vases! After that ugliness, what a relief it was just to breathe the quiet air of this uncrowded room!
Prominently on the wall was the portrait of a lady, Mrs. Hellman, the founder of the Home. Quietly I stood, raised my eyes to the beaming, gracious face. "Bless you—bless you"—the words said themselves like a prayer.
An important-looking woman came in. Her clothes were so neat, so smoothly pressed out on her figure. Like a model in our show window.
"Good-morning. What can I do for you, my dear?"
She walked over to a desk marked "Miss Simons" and pointed to a chair beside it.
"You'd like to live here?"
As her quick eye went over me, I felt so self-conscious—my hands gripped the chair to stop blushing. All the things I had prepared to say to her fled under my feet. How could I put into words what the beauty, the quiet of this place meant to me?
She picked up from her desk a printed slip, dipped her pen in the ink. "I'll take your name and address.... You live with your parents?"
"I have nobody. My father died when I was ten and my mother when I was fourteen. Ever since I've knocked about among strangers."
"What was your father's nationality?"
"Polish. But I'm an American. Born in New York."
"What was your father's occupation?"
"He was a tailor. Oh, but not just a plain tailor. He wanted to be a singer. That's why he came to America. He thought here everybody could learn what they wanted. He got stung, though. Had to keep right on with his tailoring. So crazy he was for music that —"
"Yes. Yes." Miss Simons interrupted. "How old are you?"
"I'm eighteen. But first I must tell you the way my father had to go to the opera every Saturday night, even when he robbed himself of his lunch money a whole week for it. Such a voice he had! I still remember, way inside of me, the way he sang Pagliacci—"
"What work do you do? How much do you earn?"
"I'm a saleslady in Bloomberg's Bargain Store. I get nine dollars a week. From eight in the morning till nine at night."
"My dear! What long hours!" She looked at me again. "One would never believe it. We'll have to get you a better job so you can keep your freshness."
This home. A better job. This woman for my friend! Through her—Mrs. Hellman!
"Oh, could I move in right away?"
"We'll have to investigate your references. It will require at least a month."
"A month? A whole month? How could I wait that long?"
"Child! Do be a little calmer. You'll wear yourself out if you go on that way."
"I can't be calm if I have to go back to Essex Street."
"Patience! A little patience!"
"Oh, if you knew what finding a person like you means to me! I've been so lonely—a lost animal—not a human being.... If I could only tell you how I always dreamed of home—white curtains, red and green geraniums, just like this. And the heart of it— a friend like you!"
"Well, Miss Lindner, you certainly have a way with you." She smiled. "But, after all, it's for girls like you that Mrs. Hellman endowed this institution."
She rose and patted my hand encouragingly. "I can assure you I'll do my best to hasten the investigation. You'll hear from me as soon as possible."
"I'm afraid to go away." I clung to her hand. "Suppose your letter should get lost? Are you sure you won't forget about me, with all your great work?"
"Oh, no, my child! I make it a point never to neglect the individual" She withdrew her hand, pulled out a drawer of cards. "You see? We are very systematic here. All our cases are filed, numbered, and card-catalogued. We keep a record of all our applications. This red clip over your card means special attention."
All the way back, it was as though the sun were shining in my eyes. But, nearing Essex Street, I saw again the houses huddled together in neglect, like a poor, over-crowded family. On either side of the stoop, rubbish, bags bursting and overflowing, two alley cats pulling the dirt out on the sidewalk.
The cracked doors on broken hinges. The cellar windows stuffed with rags. Over this ugliness, my new life beckoned. Oh, those shining knobs on the doors! Those sparkling windows. The very sidewalks scrubbed like marble floors.
"Well, Adele! How was the place?" Shlomoh ran toward me. Then stood gulping in confusion.
His mother waved at me from the stoop. "You look as if you won a fortune on the lottery."
"I have. That Hellman Home. The kindest woman on earth is in charge of it. Promised me better work. Already interested in me. Already my friend. Think of it!"
Shlomoh tried to smile. "You deserve to have it better. You belong in the sunshine, but we'll be so lonesome."
He reached for my hand.
I couldn't answer him. I turned to his mother, tucked my arm through hers as we picked our way up the dark stairs. "How I hate to think of leaving you here."
"Nu, nu. Each one finds his happiness in his own way. You're young yet. You need things. You're glad with your new home. I'm glad when I drink in pleasure from my Shlomoh. Soon he'll finish Doctor of Philosophy. What greater honor can I have in this world than to have a son, a learned man, a Doctor of Philosophy?"
"Shah mammeniu!" Shlomoh gave his mother a little teasing shove. "Once you said that Father was the greatest man that had ever been. Now it's your son. Little, vain mammeniu! The joke on you is that, if Father was great, it was because you carried him on your back, as you carry me."
Mrs. Hershbein did not attempt to answer such talk.
"Nu! Come in, only, children. The dinner is in a minute almost ready," she said, shooing us in before her.
How poor it all was. I never realized before how the rungs of the chairs were tied with ropes, the clutter of things on the bureau, the torn market bag with the spilling potatoes, bread and herring thrown on the bed. Everything so smelly, so dingy, and they unaware of it all.
Mrs. Hershbein fried a few pieces of fat with onions to put a meat taste into the barley soup, while I began to set the table. The old red tablecloth, limp, from many washings, felt thin and worn in my hands. The fringes barely clinging in spots like the last wisps of hair on a bald head.
I glanced at Shlomoh's pile of papers on the table. "What's all this writing about?"
"My column for the New Light. I've got to get it out tonight to have it in time for publication."
"And think only," broke in the mother proudly, "the way he works and works, and he don't want no pay."
"It's an educational magazine," he explained. "They don't pay any of their contributors."
I looked at his stooped shoulders, the baggy, shapeless clothes. Not caring how he looked—what he wore! If his mother forgot to feed him, he'd forget to eat. If she didn't put the shoes on his feet, he'd go barefoot and never know it. Even when he is a Doctor of Philosophy, he'll never be anything but a Melamid like his father, who spent his days poring over old, musty books, learning and learning—for the next world.
"The grass will grow on you if you don't look out for yourself," I scolded.
He looked up and laughed. "Well, Adele, if it does, I'll never be able to sell it for hay. A business man I'll never be. Money I'll never make. Something in me is just as it was with my father."
"But look where he left you. Do you want to remain always in a back-alley janitor's flat?"
"If I had to earn the rent for better rooms, buy myself a new suit every year, it would take me away from all my work."
"Where will your work get you? Have you no ambition?"
"Ambition? Don't you see how I'm just eating myself up only to learn?"
For a moment, I was awed by the spirit in him. His shabby clothes didn't matter. There was a look in his face that made me ashamed of wanting the comforts of the Hellman Home.
"You think my father had no ambition? Tearing himself out of his sleep in the chill of the early morning, hurrying to the synagogue. If you could have seen his eyes as he rocked back and forth over the Talmud, hours upon hours, days upon days, years upon years. My father and a whole lot of other men like my father. My race—yours, too—crazy to learn, to learn, to know."
"And when you know everything you want to know, what then?"
"I'll work to make things better."
I smiled as I saw Shlomoh again as he was. A round-shouldered Melamid with torn shoes, patched elbows, dreaming he could "make things better."
"His father, may he rest in peace, was just the same." Mrs. Hershbein beamed with pride in her men. "To work for himself, to make for himself an easier life, never came into his head. His life, his pleasure, his everything was to sit down with his books and learn. Wait, only, till he finishes Doctor of Philosophy. Then he'll settle himself and get married."
"A Doctor of Philosophy is wonderful. But how can he ever get married when he don't think of making a living?"
"God sends always to the spinner his flax, to the drinker his wine, and to the man that is a learner, the wife that will help him go on with his learning. Though I came from a rich father's house, I cooked and washed, tended a little grocery store, and even had time enough to bring my husband his dinner in the synagogue."
I loved her because she gave up so much of herself. But I knew I could never, never be like that.
But Mrs. Hershbein and Shlomoh were forgotten as I hurried back to my room. Out came my things from the boxes under the bed. I stayed up until I heard the next-door roomer stumble in from his night work at the shop. Darning stockings, ironing collars, patching the sleeves of my one serge dress, ready to move.
Too excited to sleep, I crawled out on the fire escape, drawn to the little patch of gray which was all the sky I ever saw between the black hulks of the tenements. The gray began to glow. Morning was breaking.
A moment of silence with nothing to mar the beauty. Then a cloud of black soot from a factory chimney darkened the glow of morning. The crash of the elevated trains, factory whistles, rumbling trucks, and the thousand and one noises that begin the day swept away my thoughts.
How could the soul keep alive here—where every breath of beauty was blotted out with soot, drowned in noise—where even the sky was a prisoner and the stars choked?
Excerpted from Arrogant Beggar by Anzia Yezierska. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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